Thursday, September 29, 2011

Khazars and Jews in the Middle Ages

The Khazars were a Medieval empire, peaking in the 9th century CE, in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Their maximum influence reached from the South Caucuses to Hungary and parts of Russia, though their core terrritory included the North Caucuses between the Black and Caspian seas, the Crimea and the Don river valley.

They are not well known, which is unfortunate because in many ways they, as much as the Franks, are responsible for the geographical divide between Christianity and Islam today. The Franks are credited with "saving" Europe from Islam (to take the Christian viewpoint usually taken in Western History). But the Khazars played the same role around the Caucuses, blocking the spread of Islam into what is now Russia.

The Khazars had a rich and interesting history that is not well studied. In the end they declined, as all Empires do, particularly ones founded by nomadic dynasties as I will discuss below, and were finally largely destroyed by the Rus. They then pretty much disappeared from history and are remembered now for only one thing: their odd religious gesture of defiance. In a world sharply divided between Islam and Christianity, the initially pagan Khazars chose to convert to Judaism. What this meant for modern Judaism became a hotly contested issue and is still used today to try and deny modern Jews a connection to the Middle East. It has been asserted that the Ashkenazim are descended not from Jews that originated in Israel in ancient times, but rather from the Khazars and have no ancestral link to the Middle East.

This hypothesis was based largely on an unanswered question. If one of the greatest and largest Medieval empires was an officially Jewish nation, what happened to all those Jews after the collapse of the empire? The Khazar Empire bordered on nations that later were part of the Ashkenazi world, so it was hypothesized that the defeated Khazars fled the Rus into Eastern and Central Europe and evolved into the Ashkenazim. This hypothesis originated in a very speculative and interesting book called The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Keostler, but the evidence in the book is very tentative and has largely been disproved by more recent data.

Koestler's original hypothesis was a legitimate hypothesis to make at the time. But I will argue that it is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of most empires in the Medieval and ancient world. Few empires (the Ottoman Turks later on were an exception) founded by a nomadic dynasty lasted very long and generally had only a small impact on the lands they conquered. I would argue the Khazars were similar and had little cultural and religious impact on the vast territories they controlled.

There was an old view of history wherein large migrations of peoples swept across the land and established nation states. Hence a large and culturally homogeneous Hunnic tribe swept from Asia into Europe driving ahead of them a large and culturally homogeneous Visigothic tribe which then knocked into the Roman Empire precipitating its decline. Other large and culturally homogeneous tribes like the Franks, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, etc. also played a role in these mass migrations. Often the tribes from the furthest east, like the Huns, were connected by historians to other groups in Chinese records to give what seemed a coherent history of the movement of entire peoples from one end of Eurasia to the other en masse.

This view of history has largely been discredited. A newer version of it (which is well represented in books like Peter Heather's Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe and Anthony David's The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World) is making a comeback but one wherein the migrations of smaller groups of essentially noble clans (e.g. the Amals, the Longobardi, the Vanilli) and their war bands could attract to themselves followers from a wide range of ethnicities, linguistic groups and "tribes" to form new and transient groups largely in response to the economic and military power of the Roman Empire (or, in the East, China and India). Thus large, stable and economically wealthy empires would attract war bands and their leaders as raiders, mercenaries, and client kings, and these raiders, mercenaries and client kings could sometimes do damage or even destroy the empire they were supposedly subservient to. Rarely did any of the empires formed by the most successful war bands/noble clans last very long. The Amal clan was the basis of the Ostrogoths which eventually formed a nation within Italy. Similarly a related clan was the basis of the Visigothic state. The Longobardi (the Longbeards) were a clan that formed the Lombard state. The Vanilli became the basis of the Vandals who sacked Rome and moved on to North Africa. But none of these groups that formed the core of the political entities recorded in Roman records were numerically all that large and were seldom, if ever, homogeneous culturally, linguistically or religiously.

All of the territories these groups conquered and turned into often eponymous states in ancient or Medieval history left almost no linguistic or cultural influence on those territories (the Lombards being a partial exception). The Gothic languages died out in a sea of Latin speakers. North Africa has little memory of the Vandals as a cultural force. The Arian Christian religion of most of these groups is long dead.

Why are these names, that we all know, so unimportant when it comes to the real flow of history and culture? The Huns are a perfect example.

No one knows the origin of the Huns, but they probably came from the the same Altaic/Turkic lands that so many nomadic groups came from. But our image of large groups of ethnically related tribes migrating together is false. Most people stayed put. Mostly it was people with enough influence to attract a war band around them who moved around looking for opportunities and fleeing when opportunities failed. The most successful leaders would attract other war bands and could eke out small or large political entities that the nearby empires would write down as a unified state. But they seldom were more than a collection of people following one man or family. By the times the Huns met the Goths, the Huns had dozens of ethnic and linguistic groups with them. Goths and the related Gepids by then probably made up most of the Hunnic horde even as these "Huns" were fighting other Goths, including the clans that eventually formed the seeds of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Some other Hunnic groups formed the opposition to the main Hunnic horde that was really more Goths and Gepids than actual Huns.

This is the nature of ethnicity on the ground. A cultural group that in writing seems unified is usually an amalgam of identities, some of which are only sullenly a part of the larger group. Within such entities, the dominant person or family may have a strong military role, but seldom has a strong influence on what language people speak, their religion or other cultural practices. The exceptions are particular status customs that are adopted from the dominant clan--e.g. head binding to elongate the skull was adopted by many non-Hunnic clans from the Huns. By contrast Gothic names were as prevalent if not more prevalent than Hunnic ones in the Hunnic horde, indicating either a numerical and/or a cultural superiority of Goths within the Hunnic horde despite the adoption of Hunnic head binding. For the most part, empires, like the Hunnic, set up by nomadic clans are ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse, are marked by considerable cultural and religious tolerance, and are short lived, comprising the lifespan of one man or only a few generations. Some last longer, usually losing some or all of their nomadic character (e.g. the Visigoths) and often losing much of their tolerance as well as they adopt the local culture as their own (again, the Visigoths are an example). But even these are still at heart a culturally diverse empire whose ruling ethnicity is small and has little lasting impact on the culture of the region they found their empire on. Again, the Visigothic language and religion never took root despite generations of Visigothic rule. The foundations of a nomadic dynasty are not strong enough to have a lasting impact. The Ottoman Turks are a notable exception as I am reminded as I eat what I think of as "Ottoman" cuisine in Greek, Israeli, Egyptian, Lebanese, etc restaurants.

The Khazars have an origin very similar to the Huns and the Ottomans, coming from somewhere in the Altaic/Turkic homeland somewhere between East and West. And their trajectory was somewhere between that of the highly transient Huns (who, like the Khazars, largely disappeared from history after their collapse) and the Ottomans, whose influence on the modern world was very strong.

No one knows exactly where the Khazars originated. They really were very similar to the Huns: a pagan group with Shamanistic beliefs similar to what can be found in parts of Siberia (and which Shinto greatly resembles). The earliest records of the Khazars shows a typically Turkic division of the tribe between more noble "White" and less noble "Black" Khazars which may reflect an earlier amalgam of two other groups into what became called the "Khazars" or a division within a previously united clan.

Their early history was similar to any Turkic group that established a political presence in the West. They had a tolerant rule over a diverse population and were a small ruling ethnic minority in a sea of others. Their subjects were mostly a mix of pagans, Christians and Muslims with probably a smattering of Jews. Muslims and Christians and Shamanist pagans largely ruled themselves semi-independently under the over arching Khazar noble family's rule. Similar to the transient Mongol rule in China, the relationship between the Khazars and their subjects was ambivalent, with deliberate separation from the surrounding culture alternating with considerable loss of Khazar nomadic culture among a larger, sedentary population. Again, like Mongol rule in China there was an attempt by the Khazar noble family to maintain a semblance of nomadic existence which was often at odds with their desire to rule a strong, sedentary state.

At some point the Khazars converted to Judaism. How much of this was a personal decision within the ruling family for its own spiritual reasons and how much was a political decision to deliberately avoid being in either the Christian or Muslim sphere of influence can never be known...perhaps was even hard to tease out at the time. The official story of the conversion sounds too much like other conversion stories told elsewhere with other religions, so I suspect it is just myth. The bottom line is the royal family made a deliberate decision to become Jews. But this was within an existing system where pagans, Christians and Muslims had their own courts that were respected. Religious tolerance was the norm. So the conversion of the ruling dynasty in no way meant anyone else had to or were expected to convert. It was a system designed to allow and even encourage religious diversity. How much of even the nobility around the royal family converted is not clear. And there is little evidence of widespread conversion. The ruling family adopted Hebrew and so many records in Khazaria were then kept in Hebrew and focused a lot on Jewish religious practice, giving an impression of widespread adoption of Judaism. But on the ground there was probably little impact. The Khazar language, like the Gothic languages, died out once the Khazars were gone. Similarly, the Khazar religious influence, like the Gothic religious influences, never went deep in the lands they conquered. This is typical of an empire founded by a nomadic dynasty surrounded by an ethnically and religiously and linguistically diverse war band. In the end, though the Khazars lasted longer than the Huns and Ostrogoths, their overall impact was similar.

So the original unanswered question of what became of all those Jews from the huge Khazar empire after their collapse is probably easily answered: there never were many Jews in the highly tolerant, religiously diverse Khazaria in the first place. It was largely a personal religion of the ruling family and PERHAPS their closest allies. The Judaism of the Khazars may well have died out as solidly as the Arian Christianity of the Goths and Vandals making it a dead end in the history of Judaism. That is the most likely answer.

Is there any evidence for Khazar influence on the Ashkenazim? Not really. Some cite the religious clothing (kaftans) of some Ashkenazim as evidence of a Turkish connection to the Khazars. But the kaftan was in widespread use in the whole area. It is true the powerful Khzars might have part of why it took root in the area, but no one claims that the kaftans worn in the Russian orthodox church indicate anything more than a common Turkish influence throughout the area and not a direct descent from Khazaria.

Genetic analyses show little Turkish genetic influence among Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim have clear genetic links to the Middle East, particularly to Palestinians but also throughout the area from Israel/Palestine up to Iraq. There is also some genetic input from Western Europe, particularly among those who self-identify as Ashkenazi Levites who are unusual in not having any clear link to the Middle East but major links to Germany. No clear link to the Khazars is visible in modern Ashkenazim. Honestly I was disappointed in this. I always thought the descriptions of the red haired, blue eyed Khazars sounded a lot like my Grandmother's Jewish family from Latvia and I thought it would be rather cool to be descended from rampaging barbarian hordes. But there is no genetic evidence for this.

Some argue that some Karaites are descendants of the Khazars. This seems unlikely since Karaites reject Rabbinical Judaism and Khazar Judaism was Rabbincal. Other links to Khazars also have little actual evidence. There is little doubt that some Khazars, Jewish or not, blended into the general population, but they were always a small minority and so in the end would have little actual impact on the genetics, language and beliefs of the people they ruled. Again, this is typical of nomadic political entities, though there are exceptions. The Ottomans and Magyars nearby and somewhat later were political entities with nomadic origins that had far more lasting impacts. But the exceptions do not dispute the rule that most political entities founded by nomadic ruling clans were numerically too small to be anything but tolerant of diversity and unable to impose any kind of dominant culture on the native population. This is why the Khazar origin of the Ashkenazim is based on an out dated and mostly discredited view of history where ruling dynasties represented movements of entire peoples and so represented a dominant culture. That is not how most of history worked.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Preventing and Dealing With Bed Bugs

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This is an update from an earlier article.

About 5 years ago I wrote an article about a relatively new but spreading problem: bed bugs. Since I wrote that the problem has gotten bad enough that it has sparked a whole industry of detection and extermination of bed bugs and has led to hundreds of articles all over the mainstream media reporting on this growing problem. But this has led to misunderstandings and some shady businesses as well. This article is designed to help you avoid bedbugs if possible and get rid of them if you do get them. The problems continues to get worse. Every week I see mattresses wrapped in plastic laid out (unnecessarily!) on the street to be discarded, probably due to a bed bug scare or infestation.

Last summer the building I live in had a bed bug scare. That event did include one apartment with a real infestation, but probably not more than that. Turns out only one apartment ever had them, but had the building's managing board not acted rapidly it would have spread. As it was the managing board spent tens of thousands of dollars to pinpoint possibly affected apartments and proactively treat them. During that time we became quite informed about the pests. More recently we had another scare. That turned out to be nothing. But it reinforced our knowledge of the issue.

The bad news is the problem continues to spread and a lot of what is being done about it is the wrong approach. The good news is there are some very simple things you can do that will prevent them from coming into your living space.

From the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website:

Bed bugs are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. Adult bed bugs are oval, wingless and rusty red colored, and have flat bodies, antennae and small eyes. They are visible to the naked eye, but often hide in cracks and crevices. When bed bugs feed, their bodies swell and become a brighter red. In homes, bed bugs feed primarily on the blood of humans, usually at night when people are sleeping...

Typically, the bite is painless and rarely awakens a sleeping person. However, it can produce large, itchy welts on the skin. Welts from bed bug bites do not have a red spot in the center--those welts are more characteristic of flea bites...

Although bed bugs may be a nuisance to people, they are not known to spread disease.

That is also good news. Bed bugs are not disease vectors like mosquitoes. They are just irritating in the extreme...and they can really infest an apartment if not properly addressed.

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The problem first became wide spread in NYC in 2005...after a lull of about 60 years where there were few or no reportings of bed bugs in NYC, one of the current epicenters. Since then the epidemic has taken off. Now I have heard from one professional that one out of every eleven buildings in NYC has bed bugs. Let me emphasize that I was sounding the alarm early on this one!

Why the sudden epidemic? There are several possible reasons. Some have tried to blame it on immigrants. That is almost certainly not true since here in NYC we have a pretty constant influx of immigrants and the influx of bed bugs has never correlated with influx of immigrants. If this was going to be a major source of spread, there would not have been a 60 year lull. NYC has always been a major immigrant hub (I know my ancestors came through here) but the upswing in bed bugs seems to have only started around 2005 for NYC. But elsewhere in the country the upswing started more like 2000, according to a an article from Time Magazine back when I first looked into this.

One aspect of the sudden rise of the bed bugs is simple evolution. I have often reported on how the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, particularly in animal feed, has led to a huge emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This has been a huge problem and is one reason why I now only buy meat and chicken raised without antibiotics. Well the same thing happens with insects. Overuse and misuse of pesticides in America has led to bed bugs that are resistant to most pesticides. For the record, same goes with lice. Those horribly toxic shampoos are mostly useless by now because the lice have evolved resistance against them. And many treatments for bed bugs are ineffective for the same reason.

Another aspect that I suspect is going on is global warming. Simple fact is that most insects prefer warmer temperatures. I want to emphasize that this is speculation. The evolution of pesticide resistance is not speculative. But global warming HAS been shown to be the cause for the spread of many pests, and it almost certainly will eventually be shown to play a role for many more. So I am betting that rising temperatures have helped the bed bug infestation spread.

So what can you do? I'm going to work backwards, from treatment to detection to prevention. Why? Because if I give you an idea about how awful the treatment and expensive and potentially inaccurate the detection, prevention will sound much better to you. And honestly the more we all work to keep these things under control the more likely it will be we can limit them. Remember that if your neighbors get them, you will probably get them too if you aren't actively trying to prevent them.

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There seem to be three main treatments. All three are horrible to go through and hugely expensive. They are basically heating, freezing, and poisoning. I guess there is a fourth which you can use for any items that can't stand up to the other treatments: bag everything for 2 years. That is about how long it takes to kill bed bugs by starvation. I did notice that the more convinced exterminators were that we didn't actually have them, the more they backed off that number. Eventually they seemed to settle on 6 months. But there has been research that showed even after a year sealed in a bag with no food or water, the researchers could still find bed bugs not just living, but actually reproducing! They are tough SOBs. So sealing them off requires two years to be sure.

Also, I notice many homes in NYC with mattresses thrown out. I suspect this sudden increase in mattresses being thrown out is due to bed bugs. But there is no need to throw out a mattress because mattress covers will seal them in, away from you, until they die. Mattress covers are necessary anyway (see below) so just put them on and keep the mattress. It saves money and keeps them from spreading to other parts of the neighborhood.

Treatment usually involves bagging almost everything you own for months to years, punching about 1 inch diameter holes in many of your walls, then either getting poison all over everything including inside your walls (and it takes WEEKS to fully clean up) or raising the temperature in the whole apartment above what they can tolerate or lowering the temperature to below what they can tolerate. All of these horribly inconvenient, expensive and disruptive. Best to avoid them!


Detection has issues as well. Usually what is first obvious is the itching from the bites. Then people will notice the bugs' very dark droppings (basically like dried up flakes of blood...yeah...your blood if you've got itching bites). By the time you are noticing them, it is likely that you have a pretty bad infestation. People won't always see them because they mostly come out at night, but a really bad infestation they will be everywhere, day and night.

There are two expert methods of identifying them: trained people and trained dogs. The dogs have been getting a lot of press these days, and they CAN be very effective. The dog's nose is an amazing thing, and they really can be trained to sniff out anything and tell you about it. There are bomb sniffing dogs, drug sniffing dogs, and now bed bug sniffing dogs. The flaws are that they are extremely expensive and, though potentially extremely accurate, are in practice sometimes very inaccurate. Dogs basically want food and attention. They don't care about accuracy...they just want to be rewarded, so they are easily distracted. We are pretty sure that our building had many false alarms because of a dog. I am not saying it is a scam or the dog was poorly trained. It just has a built in inaccuracy which has to be kept in mind.

When my building had a second scare I had the chance to better understand a good vs. bad use of a bed bug sniffing dog. I bet most of these dogs are almost as well trained as bomb or drug sniffing dogs, so have a lot of potential. But the handlers are also critical. The first time I personally witnessed a bed bug sniffing dog and handler team doing its thing I felt both dog and handler were performing for an audience and I felt they were giving false positive readings because of it.

This is what I saw. The first year a dog and handler came by, both seemed to be performing for an audience, and they let as many people as were available watch. It was a staged show and I was not comfortable with it. In the end I feel like they drummed up business for themselves and did so based on dubious data.

The second year we had an issue a different dog and different handler came through. This time he seemed MUCH more professional and he limited the number of people around the dog to limit distractions. He did not detect bed bugs in our building.

Bottom line is this: the dogs are potentially really accurate, but the handlers are variable, even from the same company. My advice is a.) get an inspection from a different company than you will hire to deal with any infestation and make that clear from the start. Otherwise the company you hire to detect a problem will be the same company that handles the problem, creating a conflict of interest. And b.) watch the dog and handler...if they seem to be playing to a large audience there is a problem. If they seem to be open to one person observing but focused on keeping the dog from being distracted, then they are more trustworthy. Beware of show offs, whether dog or handler.

What about human detection? People will miss the very beginning of an infestation that a dog could catch, but they do the inspection in a smarter manner and so can be more accurate overall once an infestation has gotten going beyond the first stages. Dogs are potentially more accurate but sometimes people do the inspection in a smarter way. So it's a toss up which to hire.

But the bottom line is if either a dog or a person with training in detection tells you you have them, it is really hard not to say yes to the treatment because far, far better safe than sorry. The earlier you catch it the easier it is to stop, so if you want to wait and see if the dog or person is right, you may find yourself with an out of control infestation which will be even harder and more expensive to deal with.


Oh, and is now a good time to mention bed bugs are ALL OVER THE CITY? One out of every 11 apartment units in NYC. Hotels. In the UN building. In places of work. In movie theaters. The good news is that they don't really move around so much except at night, so they aren't jumping from person to person much. The main vector is bringing into your apartment items that have already got them living inside, books, etc. But one exterminator I talked to believed people's shoes are a major vector. So they aren't spread so much directly from one person to another but by bringing infested things into your building.

So what can you do to prevent them from coming into your living space?

First be really, really careful scrounging anything, particularly furniture. Now I have scrounged a lot of stuff in my time...still do from time to time, but now I am highly careful. If a book has bed bugs, it is pretty easy to detect...if you look. You will see the black specs that are their droppings. Furniture can be harder, but there are treatments if you really want to bring a scrounged piece of furniture into your apartment. Heating (if you can) or diatomaceaous earth (see below). But my wife figures the safest is to not scrounge at all.

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Mattresses and pillows can be sealed up. This costs some money, but if you get good mattress and pillow covers, even if you have an infested mattress or bed you can just leave it in the cover and they will eventually die and you keep the bed from being their favorite habitat. These covers are the most recommended action you can take. When exterminators heard we already had them, they were 90% sure we couldn't have a problem. So covering your mattresses and pillows with high end versions of these covers will really protect you. This is a cost you probably don't want to skimp on.

But shoes are an issue as well. One exterminator said you should always take your shoes off when you come in and if possible place them in a container with diatomaceous earth (again...see below). He believes that (scrounging an infested bed aside) this would prevent almost all spread of bed bugs. Not sure if that is true, but it certainly would help.

Now we come to some amazing stuff that I was dubious about but have seen in action. Diatoms are tiny animals that live in the ocean and create a silica shell. These shells are beautiful (if you have a microscope to look at them with), elaborate, and very sharp. These animals die, fall to the bottom of the sea, and form thick beds of diatom skeletons. When plate tectonics (earthquakes and continental drift) brings these deposits up above sea level, they can be mined. These deposits of tiny silica skeletons of long dead diatoms is called diatomaceous earth. It is a white powder of very tiny sharp skeletons. To us the sharpness, at worst, will irritate our skin a bit. Can't really harm us. But to something small like an insect, it is like the death of a thousand cuts. The coating around an insect that helps keep in moisture gets pierced and they dry out and die.

You can get diatomaceous earth online or in a hardware store. It isn't that expensive. If you even get so-called "food grade" it is considered so completely harmless that you can eat it if you want...though there is no reason you would and I suspect it would kind of irritate your digestive system. But it can be used in a kitchen.

We got diatomaceous earth and I basically spread it around the entire perimeter of every room in our apartment, making sure to get it into every crevice. The problem is this stuff gets everywhere. I found it irritating to my lungs at first, but once most of it settled and we vacuumed up anything not around the edges of a room (this is also good for making sure your vacuum isn't infested!) that went away. For months afterwards the diatomaceous earth was still visible in the crevices and corners around many of the rooms but isn't a problem.

And the effectiveness? Within one day of spreading it around every single crawling insect, including ants, confused flour beetles, and cockroaches, just disappeared. And they didn't come back for about a year.

This year we started seeing some ants again and I spread diatomaceous earth next to the sliding glass door and our basement windows. And again all crawling insects just disappeared. I still see plenty of ants outside, but none have come inside. And no cockroaches for a year now! In NYC...almost unheard of.

So if most of NYC put their mattresses and pillows into bed bug covers, took off their shoes and put them in containers of diatomaceous earth when they got home, and spread diatomaceous earth around the edges of their apartment, I am betting they would find many pests would be greatly reduced from their apartments. Bed bugs, ants and flour beetles are hard to get rid of. Diatomaceous earth does it. And it isn't the kind of thing that is easy to evolve a resistance to so it won't lose its effectiveness over the years.

So there you go. Together we can all fight bed bugs. Hope this helps!

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

One of the greatest stories ever told: Kaze no Tani no Nasicaa

One of the most magnificent stories I have ever encountered (presented both as Anime and in much more elaborate form, as Manga) is the story by Hayao Miyazaki of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. In many ways it was his rough precursor to his later Princess Mononoke, but in both the original (not dubbed) Anime, and in the Manga he made from it, there is a much richer and more ambiguous plot.

So far I am not aware of any good dubbed versions of Nausicaa. You can find pretty good dubbed versions of most of Miyazaki's movies, but Nausicaa has been an exception. Too much gets changed. Most disturbing is the tendency to get rid of the original music which, Quentin Terantino style, was considered an absolutely crucial part of the original movie.

Let me just say that the Manga has so much more to it. It was so complicated a plot that my mother (despite a Ph.D. in Anthropology) lost track of the political threads. But it is one of the richest, most beautiful and amazing stories ever told. The movie version is excellent, and the animation wonderful if somewhat dated. But the Manga goes so far beyond the plot in the movie it is almost a different story.

This story comes from the imagination of one of Japan's greatest animators, Hayao Miyazaki. Here are three trailers to give you an idea of the anime.

Naushikaa: (Korean trailer but gives the BEST impression of the story)

An adequate English trailer:

The name Nausicaa comes from Homer's Odyssey and was a deliberate break by Miyazaki with Japanese tradition, though he combined the Western myth of Nausicaa with a Japanese myth of a Princess who loved insects.

Japanese Movie trailer, with the amazing original music (with ocarina notes indicated):

The basic plot of both the Anime and Manga (though the Manga takes it so much further) is that humans destroyed the world in seven days of fire...after that remnants of humanity hung on in small pockets of safety while the rest of the world is engulfed in a toxic forest of fungi and insects.

The Manga in particular explores the political outcomes of this as well as the environmental developments, but the bottom line is that the world of humans is failing centuries after the seven days of fire. War leads to the resurrection of some of the old weapons and these threaten to complete the destruction of humanity. Into this end of days scenario comes Nausicaa, a savior who combines berserker rages with scientific discovery with tearful love for all living things. Nausicaa with all her ambiguities becomes a potential savior. In the Anime her being a savior is definitive. In the Manga it is much more ambiguous, but still fascinating.

This is one of the best stories you or your children will ever see. Check out the anime for the simpler version.

Or, if you prefer a far more complex, ambiguous story, I strongly recommend the manga version as one of the best stories ever told bar none...It always brings tears to my eyes throughout the story.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

The Music of Nationalism...the Music of Immigration: Gogol Bordello's Gypsy Punk

Somewhere deep in my soul is a link to Eastern European rhythms that make me sit up and actually like stuff like Klezmer music.

There is something soulful about Eastern European music that often is lost in the schmaltziness of the genre...but at its best it is wonderful. I think I can start with something someone introduced me to in an earlier diary I did on Paul Robeson where Robeson, one of America's greatest singers ever, demonstrated a near perfect grasp of the Yiddish language. To me this is magnificent on so many levels:

The humor, the cynicism and the schmaltziness all shine through in Paul Robeson's version of a very Yiddish song.

There is also a feel of an outcast culture shared by many Eastern European musical genres, shared in, for example, Jewish and Gypsy music that finds very effective ways to thumb its nose at the idiots who have tried to destroy these cultures.

A fascinating sort of "dueling banjos" meeting between Jewish and Gypsy music can be found in this little gem (from the movie "Train de vie" which I have only heard of, never seen):

I have to admit that as I watched this for about the third time I flashed on this scene from the "Let's Kill Hitler" episode of Dr. Who (on my way to a gay gypsy bar mitzvah...)

Fast forward to modern times, where the same Eastern European cultures struggle for significance both within themselves and within a wider world. Today Gogol Bordello captures that mix of humor, the cynicism and the schmaltziness and mixes in a bit of punk.

Gogol Bordello got their start with rebellion against Russianization of the Ukraine, an extension of the nationalism that led to WW I, and which created nations from Serbia and Croatia to Latvia and Estonia...not to mention the Ukraine itself:

Russianization is something I saw the fallout from when I visited Latvia, where my Jewish ancestors came from. The towns we came from have both Latvian and Russian names (Daugavpils/Dvinks and Rezekne/Rezhitzke). The street signs are all in Latvian, but most restaurant menus are in Russian and many people speak Russian. There is tension between the native Latvians and the descendants of the Russian families resettled there during Tsarist and Soviet times.

The Ukraine is an ambivalent ethnicity for me as a Jew since the Ukraine has been a pretty damned bad place for Jews for centuries, without even the golden years that Poland had for Jews. But there is no doubt that the Yiddish culture of Jews has a strong affinity with the music of Gogol Bordello as well as the ambivalent relationship with a wider, mainly Russian culture that shaped both Yiddish and Ukrainian culture perhaps more than either would like to admit. In many ways, the Ukranian rebellion against Russianization and Jewish attempts to retain their uniqueness...and, of course, Gypsy attempts to merely survive, all have many common threads.

Gogol Bordello: Sun Is On My Side

Gogol Bordello isn't afraid of approaching some pretty fucking difficult issues. If facing the choice between the tyranny of fascism (founded by Mussolini) and the tyranny of Stalinism, which would you choose?

(My answer to the dilemma: fight both assholes as hard as you can!...and, I suppose, probably die in the attempt)

For all immigrants...Gogol Bordello - Immigraniada:

Gogol Bordello started from the sense of standing up against Soviet Russia as Ukrainians, with the West as inspiration. But now it seems they are standing up, to some degree, against American anti-immigration paranoia as Ukrainians here in the melting pot of NYC:

To me, as someone very aware of his immigrant roots, I find the anti-immigrant attitude of so many American descendants of immigrants to be sad. I like Gogol Bordello not just because they sound kick ass...but also because they show a true appreciation of the immigrant. And, whether they or I or anyone else wants to admit it, the sounds of Gypsy Punk and the sounds of Klezmer share a great deal in common.

Return to Mole's Music Page.

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Afia Mala, Royal Princess of Togo

I have been sharing my exploration of various musical genres, from Hawaiian to South African to American blues.

Tonight I am exploring a woman who sang a magnificent song that for a while was my son's favorite song (back when he was about 3 years old). The song remains one that he and I both like and it has a haunting sound that I can never forget. Tonight I decided to learn more about the woman whose amazing voice captivated first my son and then me. Turns out she is a royal princess linking the African nations of Togo and Benin.

Togo and Benin are nations I best know from the educational/philanthropic website Free Rice. They occupy a corner of Africa once part of the "Slave Coast" where many American blacks could, if they ever could find the proper records, trace their ancestry.

According to her website, Afia Mala's background comes from the two royal families of Togo and Benin and she rose to local fame when she won the honor of "Best Togolese singer of the year."

Okay, unlike many of the people I have highlighted in my focus on music for dKos, Afia Mala doesn't in herself interest me that much. Royalty has some passing fascination, but for no really good reason. And winning entertainment awards never really gets my attention.

But my son has always had an ear for interesting music. Very early, around 2 years old, he latched onto Japanese Taiko drums.

One year, around 3 years old, on vacation in California, my son was owed a souvenir. We were at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a place I practically grew up at) and they had a musical selection you could listen to in their gift shop. My son wanted to have the ear phones put on him. I obliged and he spent a LONG period listening to the selections (pushing the buttons himself) and finally picked a Putumayo CD of African music. He picked it himself, with no input from the rest of us, but it suited my tastes as well.

His favorite song was called "Segne" by a woman from Togo. He loved it so much he had practically memorized the lyrics despite having no idea what they meant:

Same song, different video, perhaps more typical of Afia Mala's personality:

The song has stuck with him since and became rapidly a favorite for me as well. The voice is powerful.

At first I thought, in my ignorance, she was singing in French, but I tracked down lyrics, which I can no longer find, and discovered she was singing in a local language. Wish I understood it better, but bottom line is it is a haunting, wonderful song whatever it means! And I once tracked down lyrics and can't find them anymore.

From the same Putumayo CD are many other great more I always loved is Wassiyé by Habib Koité from Senegal:

But let me return to Afia Mala of the royal families of Togo and Benin. I started exploring her music after discovering Segne, but found many songs that were a tad to "pop" for me. But then I discovered more songs of amazing quality similar to my favorite, Segne.

Here is Ten Homte by Afia Mala: (with better video than the Putomayo stuff, which is great music but not so great video);

Another one: Afima:

When I first explored Afia Mala's background, I was not impressed. I liked her music but saw her as a light weight. But the more I explored her music, beyond some I did not like because they seemed to inane, I started feeling a depth to her I liked and got sucked in more and more to her music. So when I read her website's biography I kind of saw what they meant when they said:

When you first meet Afia, you have the impression that she is a bit delicate, infact almost fragile… don’t be fooled! Behind this beautiful, smiling alluring face hides a dedicated professional driven to perfection, whilst still being able to enjoy life to the full! After being nominated ‘Best African Female Vocalist’ in 1992, Afia took some time off to spend with her family and refocus her career. She believes strongly that music and politics make bad bedmates. Despite this fact her song titled ‘Tout le monde est coupable’ (Everybody is guilty) resulted in much personal criticism as it was perceived as a political statement by many. Her strength of character carried her through this difficult period, and she has calmed even her worst critics.

Afia believes ‘a song must always carry a message, that’s important, and cannot be faked’. The album ‘Prophetie’ won her the Nelson Mandela Prize in Nairobi, Kenya, where she was also honoured with the role of Ambassador for Cultural Affairs for URTNA (Union des Radios et Television Nationales Africaines). She sings in several languages: Lingala, Ewe, French, Adja, English, Spanish, Douala and Swahili.

Bottom line is Segne caught my son and then me. There is something amazing about it. Most of the rest of her music carries a similar enchanting draw. Putumayo introduced me to her as well as to many other wonderful musicians around the world.

One final video...Mi Vida Live by Afia Mala: (Showing again her ability to sing across languages)

Hope folks enjoy this addition to my series of musical selections, particularly as an antidote to foolish "English Only" views that a nation has to be defined by a single language. Throughout the world there are places where multiple languages are the norm and Afia Mala is an example of a kick as woman, a royal princess, who can sing to the world in many languages.

Return to Mole's Music Page.

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Saving Heritage: Jewish Roots and a Small Synagogue in Latvia

This is one of many adaptations I have made from a talk I gave to the Latvia Special Interest Group luncheon at the Jewish Genealigical Conference in NYC in 2006. My personal story began when I started exploring my ancestry in 2003, both my non-Jewish father's side and my Jewish mother's side. I was able to make some pretty major connections on both sides. I discuss my conclusions for my Jewish side here, and my conclusions for my German side here.

This is the story of my mother's side, particularly the Luban family from Rezekne, Latvia, and a synagogue that they would have known that still, barely, survives in 2009. To me that synagogue and my desire to save it are the symbols of what Jewish identity means to me, and so, in answer to the question of why I am so interested in this one synagogue, I explore the question of heritage in general, and Jewish identity in particular.

BEING JEWISH: It all began with the pork

"Your origin and your birth are of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite...your mother a Hittite."-- (Ezekiel 16:3)

Genetic evidence confirms the belief that most, though not all, mainstream Jews are closely related, and that ultimately we have roots in the land of Israel or at least its general region. Even an isolated black South African tribe that claims Jewish descent, the Lemba, have genetic traits suggests a common Jewish ancestry. Archaeology shows that the original Jews, if I can use that term for people living so long ago, lived in a small group of poor and isolated villages from around 1200 BCE in what is now the highlands of Israel and the West Bank and whose only unique characteristic we can detect archaeologically is that they didn't eat pork. In all other ways these original Jews were typical Canaanites archaeologically. But they gave up pork. All the surrounding Canaanite trash piles included pig bones. In the highland villages those bones suddenly disappear from the archaeological record. No one knows why those Canaanites gave up pork, the meat that all other Canaanites loved. Some, including myself, have envisioned a local strongman who got sick after eating pork, or a whole group that got sick after eating pork, leading to a prohibition on pork. Others have hypothesized that the fact that all Canaanites ate pork might mean that the proto-Jews were specifically distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by abandoning pork. To me this would only make sense if a Canaanite religious ceremony of considerable importance involved pork, and emerging monotheists rejecting that ceremony threw the pork baby out with the polytheist bathwater. But I recently, in a single offhand, but perhaps critical, fact mentioned in the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky, may have found the key to why pork bones disappeared from the trash piles of those villages right about the time when the bible suggests Judaism was forming as a national identity.

The truth is, rejection of pork was NOT unique at that time, even if it was unique among the Canaanites. It was a characteristic of one of the region's major Empires...Egypt, according to Salt by Mark Kurlansky. In this book there is an offhand reference to the fact that ham would have probably been invented by the salt-cured fanatics, the ancient Egyptians, had they not been averse to eating pork. Egyptians apparantly salt cured everything...but not pork. The religious leadership of ancient Egypt considered pigs carriers of leprosy and considered pig farmers social outcasts. This is a critical piece of evidence in considering the origin of Jewish beliefs! The very first archaeologically attested characteristics of the proto-Jews was abandonment of pork. The biblically attested founder of the Jewish identity and law was supposedly someone with an Egyptian name, ending in "Moses." And ancient Egyptians rejected pork and invented monotheism (though then rejected it) in the century prior to the Exodus. This starts to be too much evidence to be ignored. It seems that there really was an Egyptian origin to at least some of Jewish beliefs even if the current genetic evidence points to a strictly Canaanite origin.

In those tiny, pork-shunning villages we all probably have distant ancestors.

But genetic, biblical, historical and archaeological evidence show that we all are also probably of some mixed origins. At least since the first Diaspora, and even from the earliest passages in the bible, mixed marriage and mixing with local populations have been major issues for Jews. Archaeologically, those earliest Jews were Canaanites. But some of the 12 tribes described in the bible seem to have different origins. Did some people come from Egypt? Did some come from Haran or Babylon? Did the tribe of Dan, as some think, come from a people who were related to the Philistines and hence may ultimately have been Greeks? The bible, genetics and archaeology give us tiny hints at a mixed origin as well as common roots. And of course each Diaspora that we suffered brought up anew the controversies of mixed marriage, assimilation and the fundamental question of what does it mean to be a "Jew?" Is our identity primarily genetic, religious, national or cultural? This is not a new question but can be found throughout the bible. In some ways being Jewish seems bound up in this identity crisis of just who we are and how we define ourselves.

What is the core of Jewish identity?

And why is this question one of such vital importance?


There is a politician in Brooklyn named Bill Batson. He is a good guy, running for office not out of ambition but because he is concerned about what is happening to Brooklyn. He fears that modern development is destroying the soul of Brooklyn in very real ways. Historic neighborhoods are being uprooted to make room for skyscrapers. Families who have lived in Brooklyn for generations are being forced out. And, the heritage of Brooklyn, particularly, in his view, the heritage of the black community in Brooklyn, is being destroyed. He points to an old graveyard where black veterans were buried. He points to the Harriet Tubman museum. He points to buildings that were stopping points along the Underground Railroad. These are among many sites of cultural importance that are the first places to be lost to modern development. As I write this in Spring 2009, despite years of trying to save it, one of those Underground Railroad sites (231 Duffiel St. in Brooklyn) has just been demolished to build a hotel. Cultural sites are lost first, then the rest of the community withers away.

Bill Batson fears this process because he fears that a loss of heritage means a loss of identity. He says it this way:

"If you take away a person's heritage, you can do anything you want to them."

This phrase struck me. He was referring to black heritage in Brooklyn. But it made a huge impression on me. Why? Because in that phrase you have the history of Judaism in a nutshell. From the Babylonian exile to Nazi Germany, you have an attempt to destroy our identity by destroying not just our lives but also our heritage.

What does it mean to be a Jew? Genetics, religion, culture, nationality...More recently, through the organization Kulanu, I have learned about people in Uganada and Ghana who have chosen on their own to be Jews, in many ways recreating the development of Judaism on their own, initially in isolation. These people reach Judaism through a completely different path than I have. It is my genetics, on my mother's side, and my culture. And, if I chose to accept Israel's open invitation, it could be my nationality. For the Abayudaya of Uganda, they chose Judaism as their religion because it made sense to them as a religion, and have negotiated ever since to be included in the wider cultural sea of Judaism and to be accepted by Israel as natioanlly Jewish even though they do not share the genetic link many of us do. By contrast, another Brooklyn politician, Brand Lander, who does share that genetic link, accepts the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism while rejecting the nationalist aspects. Where in all this is the core of Judaism? To me, ALL of these threads are legitimate, if contradictary, aspects of Judaism.

My wife once put it most starkly. My wife and I are both only half Jewish with Jewish mothers and Christian fathers. We are not very religious. Yet we define ourselves very consciously as Jews. Why? I am still in the process of answering this question for myself, but my wife once put it this way:

"We are Jewish because there are people out there who would kill us because of it."

To the average American, my wife and I just look like white Americans. But many Jews and many Eastern Europeans and everyone in Israel took one look at us and knew we were Jewish. We were glared at and jeered at in St. Petersburg and in Latvia by people who saw us and knew immediately we were Jewish. We need our heritage because, without it, those who hate us for who we are have that much more power over us. Our heritage, anyone's heritage, is what helps define our identity and that identity helps us survive in a hostile world. Heritage gives us the roots to stand up to society's sometimes very violent storms.

That is why s small, condemned synagogue in Latvia means something to me. It is part of my family heritage and a part of the heritage of all Eastern European Jews. Hitler tried to destroy that heritage and his attempts still echo to this very day. That also struck me when I visited Latvia: the events that Hitler set in motion are still playing out for many small, dying Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. If we let this and similar synagogues go, it is one more success by Hitler, though long dead, to destroy our heritage and thus our identity. My wanting to preserve this synagogue is an effort to connect with and preserve my personal identity as well as our collective identity as Jews. And it is my personal act of defiance against Hitler and all who would destroy our identity.

What is the core of Jewish identity?


--Harry "the Horse" Danning, Cousin and Major League Baseball Player

This is a question I never thought much about until about six years ago. In this I am typical of my family. My distant cousin was Harry Danning, a famous baseball player in the 1930's. His father was the brother of my great-grandmother. I talked to him about a year before he died when I had just started getting into my genealogy. I was hoping that he, as one of the oldest surviving relatives at the time, would remember things about our past. He remembered very little. What he said to me in that phone call was this:

"When I was a kid I was never interested in that stuff. I was only interested in playing baseball. Ya follow me?"

Often, American Jews don't care about their heritage until they are adults, often only when they have children, if even then.

For me a simple question asked by a professor I worked with got me on the track of my genealogy. He simply wanted to know if there was a website I knew where he could look up biographies of historical individuals. He knew I was competent on the Internet, so he asked me to find him some sites. I did a quick search, found him some sites that met his needs. But also noticed something called the Social Security Death Index. I was curious so I clicked on the link.

I found I could look up any dead person who had a SSN and get a little info on that person. On a whim, I entered my father's name. My parents divorced when I was a year old and I never knew my real father other than knowing that he wasn't Jewish and that my original last name was Kunkel, a German name. I entered my father's name and found that he had died.

I never knew my father, so this had only a vague emotional impact on me. But the thought that I could use the Internet to find out about my origins fascinated me. From there, and from my mother's memory, I not only tracked my father's lineage back to the 16th century, thanks to the fact that German Lutherans keep perfect church records, but I also traced my maternal grandmother's ancestry back a couple of generations to two towns in Latvia: Daugavpils, also known as Dvinsk, where my great-grandmother Dora was born, and Rezekne, also known as Rezhitzka, where my great grandfather Solomon was born.


--Dora (Dviera) and Solomon (Sawel) Luban

And I found our addresses in the 1897 "All Russia Census" and was able to visit our homes in Rezekne.

Luban, Sawel, Father: Jankel; Occupation: Joiner; Age: 28; Birthplace: Rezekne; address: Rezenke, Volkov lane 11-2

Luban, Dwiera, Father: Awsey; Age 26; Birthplace: Daugavpils (same as Dvinsk); address: Rezenke, Volkov Lane 11-2. Comment: wife of Sawel.

I found where their home used to is now mostly an empty lot:

Sawel Luban's parents also lived in Rezene at the time:

LUBAN, Schmuila Jankel, Age: 76; Birthplace: Rezenke, address Plekshenskaya 24-2

LUBAN, Kreine, Age: 55; Birthplace: Rezenke, address same as Jankel; comment: wife of Schmuila Jankel

Eslewhere I found a record indicating that Kreine was Jankel's second wife. I have no idea whether there were children from his previous marriage.

I found near these sites a condemned, run-down synagogue that just might have been the synagogue my family used.

For a few years after finding this synagogue, I spent a great deal of time trying to raise the needed funds to save and restore that synagogue. I have only partly been successful. My decision to do this was purely an emotional one. I wasn't really sure why I wanted to at the time. But somehow I knew it had to do with my identity, with both my family's past and the past of Eastern European Jews. Now I know that it has to do with Bill Batson's comment: I want to preserve our heritage so that we have one more deep root to help us withstand those who hate us for what we are.

In 1845, the small East Latvian town of Rezekne (or Rezhitsa in Russian) was part of the massive Russian Empire that stretched from Poland to Siberia. In that year, a small wooden synagogue was built in Rezekne. This synagogue was one of about a dozen synagogues in the city of Rezekne in the middle years of the 19th century, synagogues that served a large Jewish population, about half the total population of Rezekne at that time. This particular synagogue was painted green, and hence the building has been known ever since, rather prosaically, as the "Green Synagogue." The Green Synagogue is the only synagogue in Rezekne to survive World War II, and even now it stands, though only as an empty, condemned building. Like the Jewish population in many corners of Eastern Europe today, the Green Synagogue is in danger of being forgotten and lost.

Rezekne is a city that was shaped by an interaction of cultures: native Latvian, German, Russian and Jewish cultures mixing both peacefully and violently. Rezekne was originally a castle town and the ruins of its castle, possibly dating as far back as the 9th century, remain today. This castle was one of the first buildings built in Rezekne. But signs of a Jewish presence are just as old since right next to the ruined castle is another old building that is thought to have been the town's first inn, and this inn was thought to be run by Jews from very early on.

This was a very common pattern in Eastern Europe, with Jews running local inns and taverns next to the local castle. The Jewish population of Rezekne grew as the city grew until half the city was Jewish.

This was no little shetl, but neither was it a big city. Above I show an example of the beautiful brick architecture that made up the center of Rezekne in the 19th Century. This building was once a pharmacy in the main area of old Rezekne, very near the synagogue. Here is a picture down the same street showing the same pharmacy on the left:

Jews participated fully in city life, including sitting on the city council. This building used to be a Jewish bank just across the street from the synagogue:

Jews were an integral part of Rezekne's life until World War II. Though of course most Jews remained poor, living in wooden houses like this:

The records I can find indicate that the Green Synagogue was built in 1845. I recently came across another reference to the Green Synagogue on someone else's website. There is a document that links a Rabbi of the Green Synagogue to Yehudah ben Bezalel Levai, the Talmudic scholar from Prague also known as the MaHaRaL, known for the golem story. Here is the text and the description from the website I found it on:

A page from a book on Latvia Jewry citing the scripture from Green Synagogue

Ziska born in Resekne in 1919, survived the war in Russia and lived in Resekne until 70s, in 70s moved to Israel, where he lives now with a big family. Ziska speaks Yiddish, Russian and some Hebrew. Ziska is a great grandson of Aaron Azriel Jafet. Garav Aaron Azriel JAFET (1810 (appr.) -1861) was the head of the Resekne rabbinic court and the Rabbi in Green Synagogue in Resekne, and was the father of another Ziska (Zisl) JAFET (appr. 1830-appr.1880), who was the father of Azriel JAFET (1880-1937), the director of school, who was the father of .Ziska (Zisl, Alex) JAFET (b. appr. 1919). Ziska grew up in pre-war Rezekne and was fully immersed in Jewish life before the war. Both Ziska and his father Azriel, the respected director of Rezekne school attended Green Synagogue. The Green Synagogue was known to be build some time before by their respected relative Yimyanitov, who had houses along the street where Green Synagogue is located. The old books of Gemar in the Sinagogue also belonged to Yimyanitov. One of the Gemar Books had a handwritten inscription that was tracing genealogy of Rabbi Aaron Azriel JAFET to Maharal of Prague. Every new generation added their record to this inscription. Ziska's father copied the inscription and gave it to the author of the book on history of Jews in Latvia. A friend of Ziska found this page (above) and made a copy for Ziska.

Here is the line connecting Jafet line to Maharal as described in Hebrew text.

* MaHaRaL of Prague
* daughter married Rabbie Yosif Yoska the head of the (Dubno or Lublin?) rabbinic court, Rabbi of all Diaspora.
* Reb Tsvi Sabal (or Tsvi Hersh?) the kabbalist
* Gaon, tsadik Moshe
* Gaon Kabbalist Yudul, the head of Kael (Kayuk?)court and region
* Head of Rabbinic Court and of Yeshiva of Minsk - Galil Shmilevich of shtetl Pierda
* Moisha ZE'EV VOLF the head of Minsk and Smolensk Region, later of Fiod. region
* Akiva the head of the Borisov rabbinic court.
* Shlomo
* Menachem Nohum
* Abraham Itsak KATZ
* Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel YAFET [Rabbi in Rezekne]

I checked the available information on Internet and found that some connections are mentioned elsewhere. I also tried to reconstruct the years in this line to see if they make sense.

* Yehuda LOEW, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) married Perla Shmelkes. For genealogy, see N'tiv Hoalom. Children: Rabbi Betzalel Loewe, Vogele Bezalel, Rachel Lowe.
* Tila LOEW, the 5th Maharal's daughter married Rabbie Yosif Yoska (b. appr. 1540), the head of the Dubno rabbinic court.
* Reb Tsvi Sabal (b. appr. 1570), the kabbalist
* Gaon, tsadik Moshe (b. appr. 1600)
* Yehuda Yudul (b. appr. 1630), the head of Kael court and region
* Moisha ZE'EV VOLF (b. appr. 1660) - the Jewish head of Minsk and Smolensk Region, later of Fiod. reg.
* Akiva (b. appr. 1685), the head of the Borisov rabbinic court.
* Shlomo (b. appr. 1710)
* Menachem Nohum
* Abraham Itsak KATZ (b. appr. 1780)
* Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel YAFET (1810 (appr.) -1861), the head of the Resekne rabbinic court.

Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel Yafet would have been the main rabbi of Rezenke during the time my great-great grandfather was around.

My great-great grandfather, Schmuila Jankel Luban (born in 1820), was 24 years old when the Green Synagogue was built by Yimyanitov, the relative of Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel Yafet, descendent of the MaHaRaL. Jankel's last name, Luban, was probably only recently adopted by the family, since it was only around that time that Jews of the lower classes commonly took last names in Eastern Europe. "Luban" indicates that the family was originally from a shtetl near Lake Lubanas in Eastern Latvia. The Lubans were a family of craftsmen, not well off, but not so poor either. They lived mostly in the brick buildings in central Rezenke, not in the run-down wooden homes of the poorer class. Jankel married a woman named Kreine and they lived not too far from the Green Synagogue.

Until recently, Jankel was the earliest Jewish ancestor of mine I can trace. In his honor, my wife and I named our son "Jacob," linking my son with his Latvian-Jewish heritage. We soon discovered that little Jacob sometimes looked very much like a cranky old Jewish man, living up to the name "Jankel":

Of course now a days he is older and has taken on a more modern NYC attitude:

More recently I found an entry for an older brother of Schmuila Jankel Luban named Abram Luban (born in 1814), married to a woman named Golda with a son named David Luban (born in 1852), married to a woman named Sora Zipa. The father of Abram and Schmuila Jankel Luban was named Genuch, which is the same as Henoch/Henry, a name I will come across later.

We don't know when Schmuila Jankel and his wife, Kreine, died but there is no record that they ever left Rezekne. They almost certainly are buried in the run-down Jewish cemetery just outside Rezekne that I show here:

The last record of their existence is their entry in the 1897 "All Russia" census where I was able to learn of their existence and the address where they lived.

But two of their sons, Sawel and Henach (same as Genuch, presumably named for his grandfather Genuch discussed above), fled Russia for America with their families by 1905, fleeing political unrest, military conscription and pogroms. Henach had been forced to serve in the Russian army in the ill-fated Russo-Japanese war, and when on leave he fled Russia rather than being sent back to the front. Both Sawel and Henach had married and had children by the time they fled Russia. In fact, my grandmother, Celia, was the last member of these two families to be born in Rezekne.

--Celia Jacobson, my grandmother and daughter of Dora and Solomon Luban (picture taken in 1987)


Since both families lived near the Green Synagogue, it is very likely that when they married, Sawel and Henach had their weddings at the Green Synagogue. Both families settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where some of my distant relatives still live. Sawel became Solomon Luban in America and was my great grandfather.

--The Statendam (from Rootsweb)

There is a ship’s manifest (from the Ellis Island database, which can be accessed through that might document Solomon’s entry into US. Hard to say. The ship is the Statendam out of Rotterdam, leaving Feb. 6 1904, arriving Feb 17, 1904. The entry reads something like:

Schlime Lewin, age 37, married, Russian-Hebrew, Occupaation: Joiner, Last residence looks like something like Swislocs (???) and the destination seems to be New York.

The age and occupation are correct, but we have no record of the Lubans being in New York (though Lubans from Jekapils did indeed settle in New York) and I have no clue where “Swislocs” might be. This is the only entry I can find for someone with the initials S.L. entering the US in 1904 who has a name remotely like “Solomon Luban” who also is a joiner/carpenter. Other entries may be more similar in name (e.g. Samuel Lewin…) but don’t match occupation at all.

--Kroonland (from Rootsweb)

Even more tenuous is a ship’s manifest that might indicate Henry Luban’s family, Esther, Belle and Sarah’s, entry into the US. The manifest for the ship Kroonland from Antwerp (Aug. 20, 1904 arriving Aug. 29, 1904, has the following entries:

Rachel Liebstein, age 37, married, Russian-Hebrew, from “Mosty?” Russia, going to join her husband, Ephraim (?) Liebstein in Brooklyn, NY. If Solomon was on his way to New York (see above) sailing from Holland, maybe Esther would have followed a similar path. Problem is, “Rachel” isn’t “Esther” and Esther would have been more like 26-27. BUT notice the last two children, below:

Rachel was sailing with her children:

Moische, age 9; Feiwel age 7; Leib age 3; Beile age 2; and Sore, age 11 months.

In the 1920 census record, Henry and Esther’s elsdest kids were Belle and Sarah. They would have been age 2 and about 1 in 1904. No elder brothers are listed in 1920. No older brothers are mentioned by Henry Luban’s family. So this makes it unlikely that this record is of Esther and her family. Considering this entry to be referring to Henry’s family is based only on the names Belle and Sarah with about the right ages. Note also that Ephraim could well have been anglicized to Henry. I can find no better candidate entry for their immigration, though we certainly know they came. I can also find no evidence for Henry’s entry to the US. Remember, he was fleeing Russia to escape returning to the Russo-Japanese war. Did he come via the Pacific rather than the Atlantic? Was his immigration comlpetely above board? Interestingly, we remember moving to Milwaukee because we already had relatives there...I assumed Henry and his family. But one of his family told me they had moved to Milwaukee because Solomon's family (mine) were already there. Muddled stories.

There are two ship’s manifests that might document the arrival of Dora, Dora’s three oldest children and Ida to Ellis Island. The first manifest contains appropriate first names and mostly appropriate ages, but the names are crossed out. A latter manifest for a second ship has the same names, but the ages are different (and less appropriate). In either case it takes some imagination.

Manifest for the Corina, leaving Liverpool, England, November 17, 1906, arriving in New York November 26, 1906. There is no record of how they got from Russia to Liverpool.

Transcribed from this manifest (though on the real manifest the place of residence is hard to read):

Name Gender Age Married Ethnicity Place of Residence

0005. Lande, Bassje D. F 46y M Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0006. Lande, Ente B. F 23y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0007. Lande, Simon M 8y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0008. Lande, Sara F 7y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0009. Lande, Chaje F 2y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

The “D” in Bassje D Lande could be Dvora/Dwieva, though she SHOULD be 36 in 1906. Bassje may be a version of Basya/Batyah. Ente could be Ida (who is not a Luban, but probably traveled with Dora and her family from Russia and hence would have used the same name for easier immigration) and she would have been about 23 in 1906. Simon and Sara are the correct names and ages. Chaje could be Celia, who would have been about 2 in 1906. Her real name may well have been Chaya (the feminine of Chayim, “life”). Oddly, their destination is Chicago, IL, where they are joining Bassje’s husband. Chicago is quite close to Milwaukee, of course, but I have never heard that we were in Chicago at any point. Bassje’s hair is listed as black and eyes as blue, unusual for a Jew but not uncommon in our family. She is 5’ even. Their place of origin on the original manifest looks to me more like “Sherpoli, Russia” rather than Kanislow which is shown in the transcript.

These names are crossed out, along with the three above them, on the manifest. The Corina is not even listed as a ship that went to Ellis Island on the Rootsweb Ship list. They show up again on a manifest for the Campania, leaving Liverpool November 24, 1906 and arriving in New York December 6, 1906. Perhaps for some reason they switched ships.

--Campania (from Rootsweb)

On the manifest for the Campania they are listed:
Name Gender Age Married Ethnicity Place of Residence

0024. Lande, Bassin F 46y M Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0025. Lande, Ente F 28y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0026. Lande, Sura F 8y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0027. Lande, Simon M 6y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0028. Lande, Chaja M 3y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

These are clearly the same people as on the manifest above but Bassin’s age is still wrong, but now all the other ages are also off. Simon and Sara’s relative ages are reversed. Chaja is now male. On this manifest, Bassin is listed as being from something like “Therpole” (could this be Daugavpils?) and Ida from “Charnovsky” or something like that. Ida’s occupation is listed as “tailoress.”

Such is the mess that are immigration records for the early 20th century.

Henach became Henry Luban in America, and many of his children, grandchildren and further descendents are still alive. I found the 1920 American census records for both families in Milwaukee, WI: (Sorry...the pictures I have are readable but didn't upload well)

--Solomon Luban household, 1920 U.S. census, Milwakee, Milwakee County, Wisconsin, page 35A, sheet 8 A, lines 24-30; T625-1999. Listed with wife, Dora; daughters Sarah, Celia, and Norma; and sons Simon and Jacob

--Henry Luban household, 1920 U.S. census, Milwakee, Milwakee County, Wisconsin, page 201, sheet 10 B, lines 28-35; T625-2000. Listed with wife, Ester; daughters Belle, Sarah, Minnie, Sophia and Helen; and son John.

They lived in a German Catholic neighborhood, according to my grandmother. So they did face some anti-Semitism, but because they were all fair skinned and green or blue eyed, and many had red hair, they were considered "almost one of us" by the Germans.

One descendent of Henry Luban's is his great-grandson Henry Garfield, better known to many of us as the punk rocker Henry Rollins, shown on the right in the picture below. I also show on the left the Maltinskies, the family Henach's wife, Esther (Menucha), came from.

I think of this as the epitome of "before" and "after" coming to America pictures.

There are other branches of the Luban family in the same records for Rezenke and Jakobpils, Latvia, and the names "Jankel" and "Schmuila" repeat within them, suggesting a possible link among these families in earlier generations. But I have no data direcly linking them and no idea what became of them. Among the last records is a store owner named "Berko Luban" in Rezekne in 1911. His father was a Jankel Luban, but not the same as Shmuila Jankel Luban.


While my family was thriving in America and forgetting about Rezekne, the Jewish population left behind suffered terribly. Emigration, starvation, pogroms and forced relocation reduced the Jewish population of Rezkne considerably by the time World War II started. But the Green Synagogue survived. It was even renovated in the 1930's. When the Germans came, in one single day, 5000 Jews and the Latvians who tried to help them were machine-gunned just outside of town.

I visited this place, the only actual Holocaust site I have ever visited. Walking along the grassy space that is the mass grave, walking for a very, very long time along that grave, the impact of "5000 killed in one day" hit me very hard and I had tears in my eyes and a great deal of anger in my heart.

The Jewish population of Rezekne was almost wiped out on that single day. Only a handful survived, protected by some local Latvians. By the time many members of my family were returning to Europe as soldiers in the US military fighting the Nazis, those Nazis had all but wiped out any of our relatives who had remained in Rezekne.

Even the graves in the Jewish cemetery were shot by the Nazis. But somehow, the Green Synagogue survived. All other synagogues in Rezekne were destroyed. But the Green Synagogue still stands.


Some remember that the Green Synagogue survived because it was used as a holding pen for Jews on their way to death camps and that this is why it survived. Rezekne is on the major railroad route between St. Petersburg and Warsaw, so Jews from all over the region were brought into town to await transport to the camps. Rezekne was one small node on a massive railroad network feeding the death camps. The Green Synagogue may have been the last synagogue many of those people would ever see.

In 2003, after I had rediscovered my family's past and found the addresses where we had lived in 1897 Rezekne, I went to visit the city of my great-great grandfather to see where we had come from. I took my wife and stepdaughter and we met with Rashel, the head of the Jewish community of Rezekne, to see the city and to learn what it was like when my family had lived there:

--Rashel, Joy, Sarah and myself before the Green Synagogue

Some of the buildings where we lived are long gone (like the building where Sawel and Dwiera lived, shown as a largely empty lot earlier in this article)

But some, like the brick apartment building where Henry Rollin's great grandmother's family (the Maltinskys and Galbraichs) lived, still stand (see below). And many of those addresses are near the Green Synagogue, suggesting to me that the Green Synagogue was our family's synagogue.

The city itself is beautiful, though we saw some remnants of lingering anti-Semitism. But overall our brief stay in Rezekne was very pleasant. The countryside is beautiful, the town small and quiet. It is a part of Latvia that is more Russian than Latvian, and most restaurants had Russian menus and served Russian food.

Some of the best Russian food I have ever tasted was in a restaurant (shown in the above picture) just down the street from where Henry Rollins' great grandmother's family, the Maltinskies and Galbraiths, had lived:

(shown above as the street looked in the 1920's across from the pharmacy I showed earlier)

And this is the building where the Maltinsky and Galbraith ancestors of Henry Rollins lived as it looked when I visited in 2003.

Today only about 50 Jews remain in Rezekne. They have no proper synagogue since the Green Synagogue was condemned in the 1990's due to severe water damage.

Their shul is a handful of rooms in an office building in another part of town.

Our tour of Jewish Rezekne ended at the Synagogue and it was there that Rashel told me much of what I have told you today.

We saw the synagogue by candlelight. The inside is dusty and water damaged with many windows boarded up and parts of the ceiling falling down. It was a very sad building, but some old painted decoration from the 1930's, if not earlier:

and even a few fragments of the original stained glass still remain.

I stood there that day in the condemned Green Synagogue and imagined the wedding of my great grandparents. My ancestors had probably stood in that same synagogue more than 100 years before I did. And then I imagined thousands of terrified Jews in the 1940's spending one night in that same synagogue before being sent to almost certain death.

The joys of weddings and the fear of death surrounded me in that dark, sad building. It was at that moment that I decided that I would try and save the Green Synagogue. As a monument to the Jews who had helped shape Rezekne from its early days as a castle town to its later days as a stop along a major Russian rail line, I wanted to save that synagogue.

As a place for my family to return to see where we came from, I wanted to save that synagogue.

As an act of defiance against the Nazis who practically wiped out the Jews of Rezekne, I wanted to save that synagogue. And as a symbol of hope for the surviving Jews of Latvia, I wanted to save that synagogue.

I had never undertaken this kind of project before and had no idea how to go about it. I still have only a vague idea of how to complete the project. But I was very lucky that the local government of Rezekne had already taken an interest in restoring the Green Synagogue.

One of the adjacent streets was renamed "Israel Street" in honor of the synagogue and they had looked into what it would take to restore.

Sadly, they dropped the plan due to lack of funds. So I decided that maybe I could help find at least some of the funds needed to restore the Green Synagogue and so, soon after returning to the US after my trip to Rezekne, I went online to find funding agencies that might be interested and to find descendents of Rezekne Jews who might be able to help me. I was able to find some two-dozen descendents of Rezekne Jews who were interested in helping restore the Green Synagogue and without their help and advice, I would never have even been able to begin. And it is through this network of Jewish descendents of Rezekne Jews that I was able to get the ball rolling.

About a year after returning from Rezekne, I was able to get a small grant (about $14,000) from the World Monuments Fund's Jewish Heritage Grant Program that would cover the cost of hiring an architect to survey the site of the Green Synagogue and determine what work needed to be done and how much a full restoration would cost.

Here is a sample page of the plans the architect made:

That phase of the project has recently been completed and now the real work can begin. The local government in Latvia, inspired by the interest that I and the World Monuments Fund were showing, was able to find more than $40,000 to repair the roof, so that no further water damage will occur, and to repair the timbers that have been most damaged. But this is only the beginning. The site survey that the World Monuments Fund supported has found that nearly $200,000 worth of repairs will be needed to restore the synagogue to the way it was in the 1930's.

I am hoping to find people who are interested in preserving this small piece of Eastern European heritage, in defying the Nazi attempts to eradicate all signs of Judaism in Europe and in giving hope to the surviving Jews of Latvia.

I invite anyone who can help raise money or interest in this project to contact me so that the Green Synagogue, which has stood for 160 years of both joy and despair, can continue to stand for the Jews of Rezekne and as part of our surviving heritage. Thank you.

All photographs of the Green Synagogue of Rezekne, Latvia, photographed either by Joy Romanski in 2003, by Lavi Soloway November 27, 2003, or on October 31, 2005, by AIG ("Arhitektoniskās izpētes grupa" Ltd.) Architectural firm (Riga, Latvia). US Census information thanks to Patricia Liebham. A great deal of this info comes from and Some information and pictures from the Rezekne civic website.

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